Kama Bruce: Creating a Space That is About Belonging

Catlin Gabel welcomes Kama Bruce as the new Assistant Head of School

The son of two social workers, Kama Bruce spent his early childhood in West Bend, Wisconsin,

and relocated with his family to Midland, Texas, in his pre-teen years. He attended the University of Texas in Austin, earning his B.A. in Germanic Studies, a B.S. in Applied Learning and Development, and a M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction, and completing Ph.D. coursework in Cultural Studies and Curriculum Development.

Kama began his career in education by volunteering at an elementary school while he was in college, out of personal interest. He completed his student teaching at an elementary school for underserved students in East Austin, then spent five years on the faculty. In 2004, he joined the community at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, a K-12 independent school in Austin, where he assumed increasing levels of responsibility over the next 18 years, with roles that included fifth grade teacher, Lower School Head, Middle School Dean of Students, and, most recently, Assistant Head of School. Kama and his wife Elva have two children who will start in Catlin Gabel Lower School this fall.

Following are excerpts from a conversation with Kama in May 2022.

Discovering Independent Education

I taught second and fourth grade in public school, and I wanted to go back to the university in curriculum design and instructional design. And the school district wouldn’t support me. So I got my first opportunity to look at an independent school. And I realized that the agency and autonomy that you see in independent schools were not only liberatory for the teachers, but liberatory for the students. And, secondarily, I realized that independent schools were really privileged spaces. I never had the opportunity; I went through public school as a student and started as a young educator in a public school.

So moving into that, I felt like, “Well, how can I create a space where people who look like me and feel like me, maybe have heritage like me, or historical pathways and origins like me, can have an opportunity to be in spaces like this, too?”

Creating a Sense of Belonging

My work then started to center on belonging. How can we create a space where everyone feels like they can belong? Because I think one of the central tenants in education and learning is that everybody is able to celebrate psychological safety. We have to feel safe enough to put ourselves at emotional and intellectual risk to grow.

I’ve spent the last 18 years working on that at St. Andrew’s—really focusing on policies and systems to create a space that is more about belonging. It’s been challenging work, but wonderfully rewarding to see students truly be able to thrive. And while I do pine for the classroom, I also recognize that the gifts I was given and the gifts that I’m able to give back are about using general diplomacy to challenge systems, to grow programming, and to broaden the landscape for everybody.

Embracing the Humanity of Teaching

There’s a tremendous amount of general hypocrisy that can exist within a school system if your teachers don’t feel supported and embraced and understood. That sense of belonging and general purpose is critical. And our students are watching us for cues on how they see themselves and how they’re going to walk through this world. So if teachers aren’t okay, students aren’t going to be okay. If teachers aren’t supported, students aren’t going to be supported. If teachers aren’t continually growing, students aren’t going to continue to grow.

That’s the landscape that we inherit when we’re looking at schools—supporting that central tenet of humanity, which is teaching. And how can we make sure that we’re embracing that humanity? It’s not about systematizing and standardizing every classroom. It’s about creating a space that’s uniquely human. Because there’s nothing more important in a school than the relationship teachers have with students, students have with students, and students have with learning.

Asking the Right Questions

Catlin Gabel is going through what a lot of institutions are going through right now, which is that we are starting to recognize those opportunities for growth and development as a community. We are looking at ways to challenge ourselves. But within that greater conversation is a wealth of tension. And that’s the work I really like to do, to live in that space of tension, and look for ways to not necessarily resolve it but to grow more comfortable with it. That’s truly what discourse is about. It’s not about echo chambers and consistent agreement through a community, but the generative space of ideas, working towards this sense of discovery for everybody in the system.

It’s oftentimes just saying, “Have we asked the right questions? What have we done to make sure that everyone feels like this can be home, and that this place is safe, that this place is welcoming, and that everyone has a voice?” And to ask, “Whose voice isn’t present? How can we find those voices?” We often will assume that everything is great because we’re not hearing a counternarrative. But have we created the safety for the counternarrative to exist? The work of administrators, generally, is to remove obstacles so that we can all work and our students can be successful and understand who they are. And one of the chief ways we get to remove those obstacles is by learning to ask the right questions.

Being in Discourse and Doing the Work

It’s not that I’m coming in because I feel like I’ve got the answer. It’s more that I’ve had enough of an experience that has taught me what it feels like not to belong. To look for those things and to start to say, “Well, I don’t know enough about this. Let me open up my heart and my mind to listen for this and find those stories that often go silent.”

That’s one of the things that’s really joyful about a school like Catlin Gabel—there’s not this general fear of having the conversation, which is the majority of the work. Because once we can get into a space where we’re in conversation with one another and the conversations are challenging and fraught, that’s great. That means that now we are in discourse with one another, and now we can do the work, and now we can start to challenge and continue to be the iteration of Catlin Gabel that we want to be.